A drastic plunge in shipping to China is the latest horrible signal for its economy

(Photo by Horacio Villalobos – Corbis/Getty Images)

  • A drastic slowdown in the rate at which numerous commodities are being shipped to China suggests slowing demand for raw materials in the world’s second economy.
  • That is a sign that a wider economic slowdown is in the works.
  • “Recent shipping data has turned negative with charter rates across all sectors notably weaker compared to late November levels,” Morgan Stanley analysts Fotis Giannakoulis, Qianlei Fan, and Max Yaras wrote.
  • “The synchronised decline may be a warning for Chinese commodity demand,” they added.
  • The data is just the latest in a long line of worrying news for the Chinese economy.

There has been a drastic slowdown in the rate at which numerous commodities are being shipped to China, suggesting slowing demand for raw materials in the world’s second economy – a sign that a wider economic slowdown is in the works.

In a note from analysts this week, US investment bank Morgan Stanley looked at various trade-based indicators, all of which seem to point to slowing demand for commodities.

China’s economic boom in the past few decades has led it to become a voracious consumer of raw materials like crude oil, metals, and natural gas, and any slowdown in demand is likely to be seen as an indication of weakening overall economic health.


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“Recent shipping data has turned negative, with charter rates across all sectors notably weaker compared to late November levels,” Morgan Stanley analysts Fotis Giannakoulis, Qianlei Fan, and Max Yaras wrote.

“While such moves are common, the synchronised decline may be a warning for Chinese commodity demand.”

During the last six weeks almost all shipping sectors have seen charter rates move lower, raising concerns about the health of underlying demand, they continued, pointing to several key areas of trade data:

  • First, the Baltic Dry Index, a key global shipping metric, but one that is sensitive to Chinese demand, has dropped 17% since December. The BDI is often used as a canary in the coal mine for the global economy, pointing to trends globally long before they hit mainstream consciousness.
  • Morgan Stanley notes that iron ore imports shrunk by 3.2% in the three months through November, while steel margins have recently turned negative.
  • When it comes to crude oil the cost of hiring a very large crude carrier (VLCC), the largest class of oil tanker, to Asia has dropped from around $US60,000 per day in November to just $US30,000 now.
  • Crude oil flows to China are “showing signs of decelerating momentum,” Morgan Stanley added. According to ClipperData, in 2018 crude flows to China remained strong,growing by 7.6%, but below the 10.1% growth rate seen in 2017, the analysts noted.

Morgan Stanley’s analysis is just the latest sign of a rising sclerosis in the country’s economy. On Monday it was revealed that the value of Chinese imports and exports fell heavily in the year to December.

According to China’s General Administration of Customs, the value of exports tumbled 7.6% from a year earlier in US dollar terms, coming in well below the median economist forecast offered to Reuters for an increase of 5%.

The year-on-year drop in imports and exports was the largest since the second half of 2016.

Against this backdrop, the Chinese government is making serious efforts to boost its economy, with the country’s state planner saying it will aim to achieve “a good start” in the first quarter for the economy, words widely seen to portend more stimulus in coming months.

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